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Mild Memory Problems May Be More Common in Men

Men may be more likely than women to experience some mild memory or cognition problems. This condition, called mild cognitive impairment (MCI), often comes on before full-blown dementia.

Jan. 25, 2012 -- Men may be more likely than women to experience mild memory or cognition problems. This condition, called mild cognitive impairment (MCI), often comes on before full-blown dementia.

More than just “senior moments,” MCI symptoms may include difficulty remembering recent events and/or new information, as well as problems with language, thinking, or judgment that are greater than age-related changes but not reaching dementia. People with MCI are at greater risk for developing dementia, but not all will develop dementia.

The new study included 1,450 people from Olmsted County, Minn., who were aged 70 to 89 and free of dementia when the study began. Participants took mental tests every 15 months for about three years and were interviewed about their memory. By the end of the study, 296 people developed MCI.

The rate of developing MCI was higher among men than women. Risk of MCI was also increased among people who were less educated and those who were single, the study showed.

Exactly why men seem to develop MCI more than women do is up for debate. “It is possible that women develop MCI later than men and that when they do, it is more severe, so we may miss it because they progress more rapidly to dementia,” says study author R.O. “Rosebud” Roberts. She is an epidemiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Some of the strongest risk factors for MCI are the same as those for heart disease -- namely high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. “These occur earlier in men than women,” Roberts says.

In light of the new findings, “doctors should have a higher degree of suspicion for MCI in men,” she says.

Prevent MCI and Maybe Dementia, Too

Not everyone with MCI progresses to full-blown dementia, Roberts says.

“People with MCI may be cognitively normal at another stage, they may still have MCI, or they may progress to dementia,” she said. The majority will continue to display MCI symptoms or develop dementia.

“Once it has started, we don’t have any treatments for MCI,” she says.

As such, a lot is riding on preventing MCI, and hopefully dementia, too. “We need to start our efforts to reduce obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure earlier,” Roberts says. These risks are usually established by middle age.

The findings are surprising, says Sam Gandy, MD, PhD. He is the Mount Sinai chair in Alzheimer's disease research at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. “The prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease in women is greater, largely because of longevity,” he says. That’s why, “most people would have guessed equal incidence of MCI to be more in women.” Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia in people aged 65 and older.

The "why" part is not clear. “Perhaps men remain at the MCI stage longer than women,” Gandy says in an email. But “if we could understand the conversion of normal aging to MCI or of MCI to dementia, we would be better able to treat it.”

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